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Date Posted: 15:34 01/06/2005

Israel Epstein (1915-2005)

'Useful idiots' and the death of idealism

IN THESE cynical times, it is hard to credit the fact that in the 1930s, a wave of westerners surged into the Chinese countryside in order to do their bit to improve the lot of the benighted masses. The death of Israel Epstein, one of the 'useful idiots' who came to China to serve the revolution, reminds us all of the the idealism that once prevailed during the tumults of war and the battles against fascism. Belief often blinds, and the universal need to belong to a movement, a cause or a country quite frequently undercuts all other moral considerations.

Epstein, who was ninety, was the author of such tomes as 'The Unfinished Revolution in China' and 'Tibet Transformed', and became a Chinese citizen in 1957, when he was the editor of the English-language propaganda magazine, China Constructs. He was a permanent member of the China People's Political Consultative Conference, China's rubber-stamp second chamber, and his symbolic value to the Chinese government was illustrated when Hu Jintao sang his praises and lauded his contributions to the nation on his ninetieth birthday earlier this year. A ceremony will be held at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetary later this week.

It would have been interesting to know what Epstein actually thought about current economic and political realities in China, and about the inexorable withering-away of the revolutionary spirit that has taken place since the assumption of power by the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. It would have been interesting to know what Epstein, who was presumably inspired by a sense of injustice at the systematic exploitation and subjugation of the masses, would have made of the current Communist Party, which has taken the capitalist road with unrivalled gusto.

There are other survivors of the idealistic exodus. The translator, Sidney Shapiro, arrived in China in 1947 and became a Chinese citizen in 1963, an undertaking he still seems to regard as an act of romanticism, intimately connected with the fact that he fell in love and married a beautiful and politically-sound Chinese actress.

Another figure, Sidney Rittenberg, was a member of the US Communist Party, and joined the Chinese version in 1948 before being arrested on suspicion of being a spy. Eventually, he found a position at Beijing Radio but failed to weather the storm of the Cultural Revolution and spent nine more years behind bars for his part in an alleged espionage ring centred on Wang Guangmei, the wife of the deposed and disgraced leader Liu Shaoqi. In his biography, he tells a story of 'how I, and people like me, walked the Communist Road in the hope of creating a new and better world' but then, somehow, found himself 'participating' in the 'evils that ensued'. He talks about the exultation of his first visit to Yan'an, the revolutionary base of the Chinese Communists, a 'pure' world that was 'far from the naked greed and corruption I had already seen too much of'. Even the Cultural Revolution, he wrote, 'felt like the birth pangs of a new world'.

Indeed, these figures had staked their entire personality on the truth of the revolution. And what was true for Rittenberg was true for the innumerable Comintern members summoned back to Moscow to be purged during the Red Terror: the self-criticisms they made were usually genuine, and based on the idea that the inscrutable shifts in policy by the central Party Committee represented an objective historical truth to which personality, always, should be subordinated.

The human tragedy lies in the failure of those ideals, and in the feeling that the personal sacrifices to the Party were not part of the continuous and necessary dialectical shift towards the End of History, but in fact, nothing more than an infinitessimal fraction of the pointless human suffering that ordinary history describes. The Communist experiment sought to dignify human misery, to transform it into a noble sacrifice. By now, the misery has become abject once again.

What, we also wonder, does the British traitor and defector, George Blake, think of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current political situation in Moscow? Blake changed sides, he said, after witnessing the 'relentless bombing' of women and children by US fighter planes in North Korea, and believed that the cruelty of the Soviet system was, at least, conducted with the beautiful ideals of the revolution in mind. Consequently, Blake was said to have betrayed 42 British agents to the Soviet Union while serving at MI6, the British intelligence service. He still lives in Moscow on a diminishing KGB pension, in a nation where a ruthless ex-KGB President panders cynically to the ideas of Mother Russia and to the unifying forces of the Russian Orthodox Church, and where the country's soldiers, workers and peasants are left behind by a new class of 'oligarchs' and powerful business interests.

And so, all those idealistic days have presumably passed. In the 1930s, China had Shapiro, Bethune, Epstein and many more. Russia had the Cambridge ring of Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean, among many others. By now, there are no such ideals to justify defection. The worthiest countries are all in the same compromising globalized mess, while the worst are run by corrupt brutes and self-aggrandizers who systematically impoverish their own people.

As it turned out, the reality on the ground in the Soviet Union and in Red China was not as their chief apologists, Edgar Snow and the Webbs among them, had described it. Self-delusion is not, in fact, a rare quality, but a human universal. Many good people just wanted it to be true.

Perhaps, at least, with the loss of idealism, a cloud has now passed, and the days when students could march in the streets of Paris or London in support of Chairman Mao have departed.

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